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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                       ^
in divisions and army corps, hundreds of tanks and guns
and thousands of vehicles. The advancing armies bled and
lost strength; German headquarters were aware of this,
but they were no longer in a position to retard develop-
ments and were therefore obliged to throw more and
more reserves into the inferno of battle.
The Soviet Command parried the German blows with
the forces that were holding the defence line here. Watch-
ing the growing fury of the Germans they held their
reserves deep in the rear until the enemy's drive had lost
its impetus. As Meresyev learned later, the function of
his wing was to cover an army concentrated for a coun-
ter-stroke. That explained why the tanks, and the fighter
units that were to act in conjunction with them, were
mere spectators in the first stage of the great battle. When
all the enemy forces had been brought into action, "read-
iness No. 2" was rescinded at the airfield. The crews were
permitted to sleep in the dugouts and even to undress.
Meresyev and Petrov rearranged their quarters. They
threw out the pin-ups and foreign views, tore down the
German cardboard and packing-paper and decorated the
wall with fir and birch twigs; after that the creepy rustle
of dribbling sand no longer disturbed the dugout
One morning, when the bright sunbeams were already
streaming through the open entrance of the dugout on to
the pine-needles carpeting the floor, and when the friends
were still stretching in the bunks which had been built
in niches in the walls, hurried footsteps were heard on
the path overhead and somebody shouted what was a
magic word at the front: "Postman!"
Both simultaneously threw off their blankets, but while
Meresyev was tightening his foot straps, Petrov ran up,
caught the postman and came back, triumphantly cany-
ing two letters for Alexei, one from his mother and one
from Olya. Alexei snatched the letters out of Ms friend's
hand, but in that instant the rapid beating of the gong
came from the airfield, calling the crews to tibeii*
Meresyev slipped the letters inside his tunic and, for-
getting about them at once, hastened after Petrov along
the track in the wood leading to the machines. He ran
fairly fast, using his stick and waddling only slightly.